February 4, 2021

The foundation of all rights

Erin Daly and James R. May

Dignity is the inherent equal worth of every person, everywhere. It travels with us everywhere we go. It cannot be lost. Dignity demands that, no matter what, everyone should be treated as a person.

Erin Daly and James R. May are professors at the Widener University School of Law in Wilmington, Delaware.
Daly is the director of the Global Network for Human Rights and the Environment. May is also Adjunct Professor
of Graduate Engineering and founded the Widener Sustainability Initiative.

The article was published in the guide to the Atlas of the Stateless in English, French, and German.

Dignity is universal in that it is valid for every human being who has ever been born and ever will be born. It is inherent in that it does not require government or law to recognize it; it simply is within each of us. Dignity also defines our relationships to others, our sense of belonging to a community, our need to be treated as a person and the obligation we have to respect the dignity of others. Dignity recognizes that every person has value, and that every person’s value is equal. Worth gives rise to agency – to a sense of control
over one’s life – and agency gives rise to rights, including for those who are stateless.

Dignity is more than an inherent human quality. It is a right that has been recognized under international law, in 160 domestic constitutions, and in thousands of courts decisions around the world, sometimes as connected with other rights (including the right to free expression, the right to public participation, the right to travel, the right to housing and to education, and more). It is sometimes described as a foundational right or a “mother” right in that it is the source of all others. To expand on Hannah Arendt’s famous observation, dignity is the right to have, and claim, other rights. For some, it is so fundamental to the system of rights that it is considered a fundamental value of a legal or constitutional system, its foundation and its purpose, the alpha and the omega of a just rule of law. Indeed, we could say that the only reason we have laws and rights and governments is to protect and promote human dignity. States are thus the means by which dignity is protected and respected; they should not be barriers to it.

People who are stateless are especially vulnerable to deprivations of rights. If they become stateless during their lives, they often lose the rights that they held as citizens in their home state. When they leave, they leave behind more than their rights – they leave behind family and friends and familiar places, things they have cherished, places they have called home, and the landscapes of their lives. They may leave everything behind. Except their dignity. Whatever the circumstances, dignity should remain intact. So too for those who are born stateless: they may have none of the attachments of citizenship, but they have an attachment to their own human dignity. The original drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights chose to highlight the primacy of the individual person over any group or entity, real or imagined, and to attach dignity to birth of every “member of the human family”.

Because human dignity exists independently of any state and does not need any government to create or define or grant it, it has special salience for those who find themselves stateless. For those who are stateless, human dignity is the energy that animates their rights to claim rights from one state or another, or none at all.

Those who are born stateless may have none of the attachments of citizenship, but they have an attachment to their own human dignity.

Because dignity is the quality of being human, it connects to all shared facets of the human experience. When people lose access to health care and education, when they lose their jobs and their means of support, when their families are dispersed and their sense of community is shredded, their sense of dignity is under threat. When people lose their voice in their political communities, when they are deprived of a voice in decision making, when they are denied access to justice, their dignity is compromised. Whether civil and political or socio-economic, all rights are important precisely because they touch on a person’s dignity. And for people who have no permanent connection to state, preserving their dignity in all of these interconnected and interdependent ways is imperative. Dignity unifies all other rights and manifests their indivisibility. It is what
makes us alive to our own entitlement to a decent life, and to recognition “as a person.” Dignity and rights are therefore enmeshed in a tight circle: dignity animates the right to claim rights, and rights are claimed in order to protect and promote human dignity.

This means that stateless people are entitled to respect “as a person” by all other persons whether acting privately or under public authority. It means that their lives matter and they cannot be dismissed or disposed of or treated as mere objects for the advancement of state policy. It means that they are entitled to individualized treatment, so that circumstances unique to each individual situation are appropriately assessed. It means that punishments and hardships should be proportionate to need, but no more.

What is ultimately important, then, is not so much citizenship or nationality and the rights that derive from it, but human dignity and the rights that derive from that dignity – the rights to be treated as a person, no matter where.

This contribution is licensed under the following copyright licence: CC-BY 4.0